September 8th, 1992, SCREAMING TREES released their sixth album, Sweet Oblivion, through Epic Records. As Mark Lanegan put it in his memoir “Sing Backwards and Weep,” “In late September of 1991, Nirvana released Nevermind. The record blasted them from the basement of the music world to the penthouse suite with the force of an atomic bomb, replete with toxic, billowing mushroom cloud. That explosion carried Seattle’s music scene with them to the worldwide stage…”
While Screaming Trees were thrust into the limelight post-Nevermind, they never attained the enormous success some of their contemporaries achieved. There are numerous reasons why, timing, interpersonal dynamics and recreational habits are but a few. What cannot be argued is the sheer depth, beauty and quality of their music. If a band’s success were to be gauged on their musical output alone, Screaming Trees over-achieved.
They were formed in 1984, one hundred miles north of Seattle, in Ellensburg, Washington. Guitarist Gary Lee Conner, his brother Van Conner on bass, drummer Mark Pickerel and singer Mark Lanegan bonded in high school over an interest in punk, garage, and classic rock. They were among the first of a new breed of young Pacific Northwest bands to begin plying their trade alongside Green River, Melvins and Soundgarden (who all formed between ’83 and ’84). Screaming Trees began laying the groundwork for what would eventually lead to the usurping of mainstream rock by the bands and sounds of the Pacific Northwest.
Signing with STT in 1987. The band found a home on one of the great independent punk labels of the 1980s. Black Flag’s Greg Ginn founded SST in 1978, primarily to release Black Flag material. But quickly began signing up swathes of talent. Ginn’s ear for a great band was as sharp as his blistering guitar playing, releasing landmark albums by bands like Husker Du, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Subhumans, Saint Vitus, Sonic Youth, Bad Brains, Firehose, Das Damen, Dinosaur Jr. and Screaming Trees fellow Pacific Northwest alumni Soundgarden.
After releasing their album Clairvoyance on the indie label Velvetone in 1986, Screaming Trees released three stellar albums on SST: Even If and Especially When (1987), Invisible Lantern (1988) and Buzz Factory (1989). In 1990, the band signed a major label contract with Epic Records and released the brilliant Uncle Anesthesia. Produced by Terry Date and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, they were given a bigger budget, more studio time and proper pre-production time.
Cornell’s presence was as much about the band having a friend and familiar face around as it was about production. Soundgarden had jumped from SST to major label A&M in late 1988. They released Louder Than Love in 1989, with Terry Date also producing. Chris helped allay the band’s misgivings with the major label process. Also, after recording each day, Terry and Chris would square off against Mark and Van on the basketball court, where apparently, the latter team repeatedly kicked ass.
Following the release of Uncle Anesthesia and its subsequent tour, Screaming Trees hit some turmoil. Van Conner went on hiatus, choosing to tour as bass player for Dinosaur Jr. Donna Dresch filled in for him for all remaining Screaming Trees performances. Drummer Mark Pickerel, over time, had become frustrated that his input and ideas for the band were falling on deaf ears. Growing increasingly tired of his opinions being ignored, he quit. “I had to do it, mentally and emotionally,” he said.
Pickerel returned to Ellensburg, where he opened a record store and formed the band TRULY with ex-Soundgarden bassist Hiro Yamamoto and frontman Robert Roth. Pickerels’ brilliant and unique style propelled the Screaming Trees through five albums and numerous tours, and his presence on the drum stool would be hard to replace.
Before writing began on Sweet Oblivion, the band started looking for a new drummer. Enter Barrett Martin, a gifted 24-year-old who was fresh off the prodigious Skin Yard drum stool. Seattle’s Skin Yard was a phenomenal band and the most fertile “drummer farm” in the Pacific Northwest. Founded by producer extraordinaire Jack Endino, Ben McMillen (later of Gruntruck), and Daniel House (founder of C/Z Records), Skin Yard spent the ’80s going through a succession of incredible drummers before they moved on to other bands. Starting with Matt Cameron (Soundgarden/Pearl Jam) in 1985, Steve Weid (TAD/Willard), Jason Finn (Love Battery/The Presidents Of The United States Of America), Greg Gilmore (Ten Minute Warning/Mother Love Bone), Norman Scott (Gruntruck) all passed through the ranks of the great Skin Yard.
Barrett Martin’s hard-hitting but extremely expressive drumming style fit like a glove; his ability to match Gary Lee’s penchant for psychedelic flair only elevated the music. Adding touches of world music percussion, endlessly inventive drum patterns and edge-of-your-seat propulsive rhythms. Martin became crucial to the Sweet Oblivion sound. Thankfully, bassist Van Conner returned from his Dinosaur Jr. sabbatical, locking in one of the great rhythm sections of the ’90s.
Recording took place at Baby Monster Studios and Sear Sound Studios in New York City in March 1992, with Don Fleming producing. Fleming, a musician himself, had produced albums for Sonic Youth, Teenage Fanclub, Hole and The Posies and fronted his own band Gumball. Screaming Trees improved steadily with each album, moving in a remarkably linear and consistent curve, and they didn’t let that trajectory slip with Sweet Oblivion.
The album opens with “Shadow Of The Season,” Gary Lee Conner’s eastern-tinged guitar intro is complemented by Barrett Martin’s percussion. As the full band falls in, we hear the liquid low baritone of Mark Lanegan. A truly unique instrument, Lanegan’s voice feels familiar and warm while also shot through with remorse, regret and an imposing sense of danger. By the song’s chorus, the urgency in his voice lifts it skyward: “Said Lord, please give me what I need, He said there’s pain and misery, Oh sweet oblivion feels alright…”
“Nearly Lost You” was an 11th-hour addition to the Singles soundtrack (released months before the movie, in June 1992). That soundtrack eventually went platinum. The song and its video were released to coincide with the September ’92 release of Sweet Oblivion and the cinematic release of Singles the movie. The song became an MTV Buzz Clip, peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart. “Nearly Lost You” was a significant factor in Sweet Oblivion selling more than 400,000 copies, which was the Screaming Trees’ best sales performance in their 15-year history.
Written by bassist Van Conner, it’s also the song that introduced the band to a worldwide audience, and despite this being Screaming Trees’ sixth album, “Nearly Lost You” was how scores of eventual lifelong fans found the band. The song’s cinematic scope and rough-hewn Americana vibes were a welcome panacea to the trends of the time. “Nearly Lost You” is a masterpiece of great American rock. Van Conner recalls the song’s birth, “I had a little house in Ellensburg, and I decided not to pay rent that month to buy a four-track. I think it was the summer before we recorded Sweet Oblivion. The first time I used the four-track, I started writing that song on guitar. I was referring to that point where you’ve gone too far, and then you make it back somehow…”
Lanegan adds, “The chorus, “I nearly lost you,” was something Van sang on the original demo. He gave me these tapes, which were tough to listen to, and somewhere in the midst of one of them, there was this riff that sounded different than anything we had. We just wrote it from that riff, specifically to write a single. I’m certain that it was because our A&R guy said, “This is good stuff, but we don’t have a single yet.”
The album’s second single, “Dollar Bill”, is another gorgeous slice of Americana. Opening with acoustic guitar and Lanegan’s sandpaper howl, the song builds into an impassioned plea: “I don’t want to hurt you, It’s all I seem to do, Don’t want to desert you, It’s all I seem to do…” The chugging bounce of “More Or Less” nods to Crazy Horse era Neil Young, Gary Lee channelling Young’s evocative guitar histrionics. “Butterfly,” with its massive, wide-open guitars, powerful drumming and ecstatic hooks, feels life-affirming and joyous. But at its heart, Lanegan is in no mood for the joys of life: “Cry, cry butterfly, Heard it on the wings that you’re going to die, Cry, cry butterfly, Well I’m sick, and I want to go home..”
“For Celebrations Past” is steeped in ’60s rock jangle. Screaming Trees’ influences come from a different place than their contemporaries. Their calling card was their ability to meld garage rock, psychedelic forays, Americana and classic rock into a wholly unique package. It also went a long way to assuring how timeless their sounds became.
“The Secret Kind” is a barrelling ripper. Guitar riffs weaving between manic drum fills. Barret Martin’s drumming is crazed and jaw-droppingly exciting as the Conner brothers let rip. “Winter Song” is a dusty psychedelic trip. The heavy Tom Waits blues of “Troubled Times” intro sounds world-weary and laden with pathos until Barret Martin’s cannon shot snare drags the song into more upbeat territory; the song is filled to overflowing with essential guitar and vocal hooks.
No One Knows” (nothing to do with the Queens Of The Stone Age track Mark Lanegan also had a hand in writing) glides with real depth and soul. The album closes with “Julie Paradise”, in which the girlfriend of the song’s protagonistic is hooked on drugs, which destroys her family, “Julie, your mother cried, Sent home a bullet for the family, That’s how your father died, Died a broken and lonely man….”
Despite the heavy lyrical themes of Sweet Oblivion, musically, the album is inspirational, heart-warming and uplifting. Barrett Martin summed up the musical breath and dynamic range throughout, “I tend to think that a great album, like a human being, should be a fluid, living, breathing thing. The body inhales and expands; then it exhales and contracts, so should the feel of a song..” From the first notes to the final coda, Sweet Oblivion is a trip. Its journey is filled with the rise and fall of tempos, gripping emotional tension and euphoric release, ferocious energy and gossamer thin beauty.
After the release of Sweet Oblivion, Screaming Trees were at their commercial peak; a quick follow-up album would likely have helped push them into the big leagues. But it would be four long years before the band released Sweet Oblivion’s follow-up, the exquisite Dust. The excruciating wait copper sealed their fate and ended their chances of a mainstream breakthrough.
And maybe what we got was what was meant to be. It never mattered how bleak things got, how many were paying attention, or what the rest of the world wanted from them. Screaming Trees always succeeded in the most important task—the songs. The band never released a bad album or below-par song. Sweet Oblivion is exceptional and sits perfectly within an exceptional catalogue. The deaths of Van Conner and Mark Lanegan make listening to albums like Sweet Oblivion bittersweet. But the legacy they left cannot be denied. The Screaming Trees story is one of an imperfect band that used those imperfections to create near-perfect art.